In modern elections in the United States there are often scandalous incidents involving one or more presidential candidates or the people closest to them. Most recently, New Jersey Governor and potential 2016 Republican candidate was involved in a bridge scandal, which has severely influenced perceptions of his character and subsequent conversations regarding his potential candidacy. Although Christie claims that “Bridgegate” has not and will not affect his 2016 plans, the scandal still remains a black mark on his record and one of the many examples the role personal character plays in presidential campaign rhetoric.
This is only one type of scandal voters are exposed to during the modern never-ending campaign season. Apart from incidents that involve an action (or inaction) taken while in public office that could affect the welfare of people, skeletons often come out of closets that prompt audiences to question or reconsider a politician’s character. Juicy secrets are revealed about politicians and presidential candidates to audiences willing to indulge them. Often when the skeletons come out, the mudslinging begins—supporters of the other, better candidates not only share the damning information but exploit it in a variety of ways for a particular end—damaging the candidate’s character enough to cost him/her the election to public office. This topic is ripe with content for analysis, but for this blog post I will focus on one 19th century election and a “major scandal” that resulted in rhetorical acts of mudslinging and character attacks, analyzing one particular artifact (while also showing other related images) that acted symbolically to shape perceptions of S. Grover Cleveland in the 1884 election versus James Blaine.
Character attacks, or the latin ad hominem, are not uncommon to political discourse generally. In the historical discourses we have examined as a part of #COMM 760, it is clear that “mudslinging” is not unique to the most current era of politics. Everything about a candidate’s character—appearance, intelligence, and experience, for example—directly impacted that candidate’s trustworthiness as leader of the nation, more so than “issues” in a campaign. As Trevor Parry-Giles explains, “American elections, particularly at the presidential level, are dominated by images and personality-based arguments.” Political images, then, or “verbal and/or visual rhetorical markers of public character and individual persona,” take the abstract idea of “character” and concretize it. With this basic framework in mind, I turn to the primary political image artifact that appeared during the 1884 Cleveland v. Blaine election: a cartoon entitled “Another Voice for Cleveland.”
In this political cartoon appearing in The Judge, magazine Grover Cleveland’s scandalous secret is not only exposed to the audience, but it is exploited in a way that casts Grover Cleveland as cowardly. Ernest Ferguson explains that after the Democratic convention and nomination was secured for Cleveland “came the bombshell. Several days after the Democratic convention, the Buffalo Evening Telegraph published an exposé, headlined ‘A Terrible Tale: A Dark Chapter in a Public Man’s History,’ which revealed a secret episode in Cleveland’s life. The article alleged that Cleveland was the father of an illegitimate 9-year-old child, and that he’d been paying the mother for years to keep her quiet. Republican newspapers gleefully picked up the story, and Blaine supporters started reciting a jeer of their own: ‘Ma, ma, where’s my pa?’” In the cartoon, the child is visibly upset, but the words read, “I want my Pa!” instead of “Where’s my Pa?” This, as the title of the cartoon does, suggests that the child is “another one for Cleveland.” Cleveland is shown looking discombobulated –almost drunken—as he tries to cover his ears and ignore the cries from his child. Cleveland is depicted as shaken and visibly trying to tune the child out, thus he is cowardly in the face of his secret. The child’s mother—the woman, Maria Halpin, whom Cleveland’s affair was with, is shown hiding her face in shame. Perhaps she is portrayed as such because of the allegations that Cleveland paid for her silence over the years.
There is a significant juxtaposition in this cartoon. The tag hanging from Cleveland’s coat reads “Grover the Good.” Before the exposé of his sex scandal was published, Cleveland had a reputation for public integrity. In fact, Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of The New York World, said, “When a blathering ward politician objects to Cleveland because he is ‘more of a Reformer than a Democrat,’ he furnishes the best argument in favor of Cleveland’s nomination and election.” Ferguson continues, “At the Democratic convention in Chicago, one of Cleveland’s prominent boosters said that his friends ‘love him and respect him, not only for himself, for his character, for his integrity and judgment and iron will, but they love him most for the enemies he has made.’” The Judge cartoon depicts a common rhetorical attack on character: if you think you know “Grover the Good,” think again.
While the cartoon itself serves as an argument against Cleveland’s personal character, Cleveland responds in a way that just might have been the reason he was able to win the election. When offered an envelope containing James Blaine’s scandalous activities, Cleveland paid for it, shredded it, and burned it. Not only did Cleveland own up and accept responsibility for the illegitimate child, he chose to take “the moral high road” when given the opportunity to stoop to his opposition’s level. Ferguson concludes his historical analysis of Cleveland’s sex scandal by saying “Cleveland wasn’t always honest. He had long held a grudge against the press, and during his second term he and aides covered up the news of a tumor in his jaw and surgeries to repair it. However, that did not dent his reputation for personal integrity and putting the public before politics. He died in Princeton, N.J., in 1908, and on his tombstone at the Nassau Presbyterian Church are carved the words: ‘I have tried so hard to do right.’”
Cleveland’s character issue reflects the larger trend in American politics. Michael Calvin McGee reminds us of the ideal principle “not men, but measures” as the basis for electing leaders, but history has proven that it is oft not the case. Character matters for audiences, and one could study any president/presidential candidate in terms of his or her character and that relation to election success. In Cleveland’s case, perhaps the voters appreciated his honesty when the scandal was exposed, and saw Blaine as posessing low-morals:
A delegate from Chicago summed up the situation. “I gather that Mr. Cleveland has shown high character and great capacity in public life but that in private life his conduct is open to question, while on the other hand, Mr. Blaine in public life has been weak and dishonest, while he seems to have been an admirable husband and father. The conclusion I draw from these facts is that we should elect Mr. Cleveland to the public office for which he is admirably qualified to fill and remand Mr. Blaine to the private life which he is so eminently fitted to adorn.”
Grover Cleveland won the election of 1884 and married a woman named Frances Folsom in the White House. Mudslinging, character-attacking discourses are compelling arguments against character that could affect the outcome of an election. But Cleveland countered those arguments by enacting the character he had been previously known to have, ultimately overcoming the attack through his virtuous actions. Perhaps today’s politicians could learn from the strategies of Grover Cleveland in the face of political scandal.
 Trevor Parry-Giles, “Resisting a ‘Treacherous Piety’: Issues, Images, and Public Policy Deliberation in Presidential Campaigns,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 13, no. 1 (2010): 37-38.
 Ibid, 39-40.
 http://elections.harpweek.com/1884/cartoon-1884-Medium.asp?UniqueID=27&Year=; also Ernest B. Ferguson, “Moment of Truth,” American History (2013): 65.
 Judge was a popular Republican-leaning publication (Ferguson 65).
 Ernest B. Ferguson, “Moment of Truth,” American History (2013): 65
 Ernest B. Ferguson, “Moment of Truth,” American History (2013): 66.
 Ibid, 67.
 Ibid, 68.
 Michael C. McGee, ‘Not Men, But Measures’: The Origins and Import of an Ideological Principle,” The Quarterly Journal of Speech 64 (1978): 141-154.
 Ibid, 67.
 Photo, right: Library of Congress. Cleveland’s opposition event went as far as to question his trustworthiness because he went by his middle name!
James Blaine’s campaign for the Presidency in 1884 was surrounded by controversy. With his opponent, Grover Cleveland, portrayed as the ideal honest, good person, Blaine had a series of scandals that tainted his image and led to numerous political cartoons criticizing him. This particular cartoon references three of the major scandals he was involved with that proved he was not qualified to be the Republican Presidential candidate.
The two of the weights on the trap depicted in this cartoon represent the Mulligan Letters and Little Rock Bonds. About fifteen years before the election, Blaine served as speaker of the house, and was involved in passing a land grant for the Little Rock and Fort Smith Railroad, however as a result he received a great deal of money in bonds from the company. Once the success of the railroad company eventually waned, he sold his bonds to another man, Tom Scott, and began supporting his railroad company, Scott’s Texas and Pacific Railroad, instead. This situation was discovered by one of the men working for the Little Rock railroad company, James Mulligan, who found copies of letters from Blaine to the head of the Little Rock railroad, detailing the crooked dealings Blaine was involved with. (“1884: Cleveland v. Blaine”). Aptly named the Mulligan Letters, these were published by newspapers throughout the country as Blaine began his campaign for the Presidency, greatly hurting his credibility. The fact that the phrase “Burn this letter!” was written at the bottom of one of the letters was even more revealing, and significantly influenced the public’s opinion of him.
The other weight on the trap in this cartoon is “Guano Statesmanship,” related to Blaine’s war record through the War of the Pacific. He petitioned to the U.S. to support Peru against Chile, however many people in government doubted his reasons for wanting to give aid to Peru. There were charges that he had personal investments in Peruvian guano and nitrates, which could be used as gunpowder during battle, and was motivated to help solely because of this reason (“1884: Cleveland v. Blaine- Blaine’s Scandal Sheet”). This also works to show his dishonesty and works to convince the American people that Blaine was solely focused on doing things for personal gain, as opposed to the well being of the country.
Logan’s portrayal as a rat is in itself degrading, giving the impression that he is among the lowest forms of life that no one would or should support. As he reaches for the cheese under the trap, the “Presidency,” he will inevitably be crushed by his “o’erweening ambition,” or his cocky and arrogant goals for leading the country despite his many shortcomings. The title says it all by calling Logan “His Own Destroyer,” saying that his own actions in the past have destroyed any chance he has at winning the Presidency. Though he had experience in the government, these many scandals appear to weigh too much and will literally crush him before he can achieve his goals. The irony of the tagline at the bottom is obvious, calling it a “pleasant situation,” and adds to the impression that Blaine is not in any position to win the election. These details all combine to show to the public that Blaine is an immoral, self-centered, and ill prepared candidate compared to Cleveland.
Another important part of this cartoon to note is the tail of the rat, Blaine, which has his Vice Presidential candidates name, “Logan,” written on it. Blaine did not have a solid relationship with his VP candidate, as they disagreed on a variety of topics, however the two of them were selected by the Republican convention to run as a team. Logan did not have nearly as many scandals on his record as Blaine did, which is why he worked to stress the integrity of past Republican Presidential candidates and prove that he and Blaine would continue that tradition (“1884: Cleveland v. Blaine”). Other than that minor contribution, however, he was not seen as having any kind of influence in the campaign, and was even sometimes ignored by Blaine. His representation as Blaine’s tail, then, shows just how insignificant he was to the campaign, and diminishes his power and credibility. Indeed, a Presidential candidate with a history of corruption with an unimportant candidate for Vice President certainly combines for an unsuccessful campaign, which is exactly what Cleveland’s campaign was hoping when they began their attacks on the Republican candidates. Though the results of the election were incredibly close, it is clear that these slander campaigns had a huge impact on voter’s decisions on election day.
Unfortunately, the candidates who lose in Presidential elections throughout history are often forgotten. During the Gilded Age in American history, there was a series of elections that were decided by a fraction of the vote, which means that we could have very easily elected the other men who ran for the position. Despite this fact, their names are still mostly unknown. James Blaine is the perfect example of this, competing against Grover Cleveland in the 1884 election. While his campaign was surrounded by scandal, he still managed to come very close to beating Cleveland, losing the popular vote by only 0.3 percent.
Many political cartoons were made in reference to Blaine’s embarrassing past, with this particular cartoon acting as a reference to a group of people called the Mugwumps. This was a group of politicians from the Republican Party who were displeased with Blaine as the Republican nomination for President, and crossed party lines to support Cleveland instead. They considered themselves to be reformers, and believed in Cleveland’s competency as a candidate much more than Blaine’s. They were soon known as “Mugwumps,” named after the Algonquian Indian word for an important, or self-important, person, and were subject to a great deal of criticism from the rest of their party. Indeed, there were other cartoons drawn that showed these politicians sitting on a fence with “their ‘mug’ on one side of the fence and their “wump” on the other. Sometimes, they were even referred to as “hermaphrodites,” or homosexuals, because they refused to support the party they came from (Frum). “Their actions were seen as a complete betrayal of the Republican Party, and contributing to Blaine’s eventual loss in the election.
This cartoon demonstrates the fear of the Republican Party, and how they were convinced that the Mugwumps would bring about the destruction of Blaine’s campaign. The scene is modeled off of a story from the Bible known as Belshazzar’s Feast. In this story, Belshazzar, the king, is having a great feast with many of his lords with a great deal of food and drink to go around. In the middle of this dinner, “fingers of a man’s hand” appeared and wrote a threatening message on the wall that his kingdom would be destroyed, while a voice spoke about how Belshazzar had dishonored his father before him as king. Later that night, Belshazzar was killed, and a new king took over the kingdom (“Belshazzar’s Feast Bible Story”).
Related to this story, the cartoon has the words “Republican Revolt” written on the wall in the middle of what appears to be a large feast for Blaine, his Vice Presidential candidate John Logan, and several over politicians. Blaine, tattooed in the countless scandals he was associated with, is trying to hide from the ominous message behind pieces of newspapers, with a scared look on his face. Like Belshazzar, Blaine would inevitably fail in his pursuits, and in this cartoon the Mugwumps are being shown as the ones responsible. In addition, Logan is laying next to him, trying to block the message with his hand while wearing what appears to be clothes similar to the Native Americans, once again drawing a connection to the term Mugwumps and its meaning in the Algonquian Indian language. Logan’s positioning also reinforces the idea that Logan is less powerful and less significant compared to Blaine, with him literally falling down below Blaine.
The expressions of the faces of the men seated at the feast have similar looks of fear, as they all appear to be backing away from the message or even fighting each other to run away. The ears of the men who are attempting to escape are enlarged to resemble rats, belittling their integrity and showing their cowardice. The “food” they are feasting on is called “Pension Pie” and “Monopoly Stew,” referencing Republican Party’s initiatives related to monopolies and pensions at the time. Labeling all of the individuals also worked to hold them accountable to the American public for supporting a supposedly doomed candidate. These characters range from the speaker of the New York assembly to the editor of the Chicago Tribune (“1884: Cleveland v. Blaine- The Writing on the Wall”). The magazine where this cartoon was published, Puck, tended to favor the Democratic Party, and this preference is made even more obvious in this cartoon.
The 1884 election occurred during the Gilded Age in American history, where there was a series of Presidential elections that were very close in terms of the Electoral College, as well as the popular vote. Though candidates did not campaign in the same way that people today view campaigning, there were certain pieces of rhetoric that were very common for the time. One of the most popular forms of campaign rhetoric was political cartoons, which often directly attacked the candidate’s personal lives. This particular cartoon criticizing the Democratic nominee Grover Cleveland is the perfect example of a typical political cartoon for the late 1800s. The focus of this election quickly turned away from the candidate’s political views and focused mostly on their personal lives and the scandals that ensued.
Entering into the 1884 election, Cleveland was very clearly favored to win. His “reformism” stressed his dedication to hard work and honesty, which made him a very endearing candidate in the eyes of both Democrats and Republicans (“Grover Cleveland (1837-1908)”). He also stood up against Tammany Hall, a Democratic political group from his home state of New York, which worked to promote immigrants into government positions; this move gained a lot of support from the middle class, and added to his positive image in the press. This cartoon, however, worked to completely change how he was viewed.
The story behind this cartoon is known as the Maria Halpin Affair. In July of 1884, rumors began circulating around the country that Cleveland was involved in a sex scandal with Maria Halpin, a widow who supposedly fathered his child out of wedlock about ten years ago. It was also said that he not only abandoned the mother and child, but also placed the child in an orphanage and sent the wife to an insane asylum. Cleveland later admitted to the truthfulness of the accusations made against him, however he denied that Halpin was placed in an asylum, claiming instead that she went to a half-way house due to her alcoholism. He also would add that he had financially supported the mother and son until she was sent to the half-way house, at which point his son was adopted by “a wealthy couple” (“1884: Cleveland v. Blaine”). Because he prided himself on his honesty, Cleveland had no choice but to admit to this behavior, but the Democratic campaign continued to twist the details of the situation to make Cleveland seem more like a responsible adult who was merely looking out for the future of his child.
This cartoon, which was published two months prior to election day in September of 1884, portrays Halpin as a clearly distressed, upset woman holding the son she allegedly had with Cleveland, with the child crying, “I want my Pa!” This soon became the slogan for the Republican party, chanting “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” at Cleveland; the Democratic party, however soon added to the chant to say, “Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!”. Though much was unknown about Halpin, mostly because no reporters ever interviewed her about the situation, this cartoon chooses to portray her as a well-dressed, sophisticated woman who cannot even look at Cleveland, and is trying to hold her innocent child away from him. Indeed, the fact that the child is dressed in white is also significant, stressing the innocence of the child born out of wedlock. This part of the image works to create even more sympathy for her in this situation, showing her as a woman the public can relate to rather than the alcoholic the Cleveland campaign wanted people to believe she was.
Cleveland, on the other hand, looks unintelligent and unprofessional, standing in an odd way with mismatched clothes and an angry, confused look on his face. This is in direct contrast with how he was normally portrayed, as a moral and honest person. There is even a tag on his jacket that reads “Grover the Good,” emphasizing further that his positive reputation was not well deserved and pointing to the contradiction displayed in this cartoon. The tagline at the bottom of the page reads, “Another voice for Cleveland,” showing the public that there was a previously unheard “voice” calling for Cleveland’s attention, particularly his son born from an extramarital affair. The cartoon is very direct about the message it is trying to send, demonstrating that Cleveland is not as moral as most people may believe, and that he is an incompetent Presidential candidate. Though Blaine was connected to a series of scandals, this particular one that Cleveland admitted to being involved in deeply affected his campaign, with Cleveland only winning the popular vote by 0.3 percent.